Bartenders play all sorts of roles: therapists, friends, concerned parents. But they are first and foremost drink makers, and the best ones know how to do something truly special with their wall of liquor. These 21 veterans have shown their considerable talents by pioneering booze trends and making even the most laughable cocktails legit. Flipping bottles was not a factor (sorry, Brian Flanagan), but Cognac creativity certainly was.
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The Townsend (address and info) Austin, TX From OG absinthe revivalist Peche, to $5 Old Fashioned haunt Volstead, to cooler-than-thou reservation speakeasy Midnight Cowboy, to elevated restaurant-bar Qui, to his most recent station slinging gimmick-less cocktails at The Townsend (which he hopes will transcend all of the aforementioned trends and just be a damn good place to drink), Justin Elliot's resume reads like a roadmap of the city's cocktail evolution. And yet, he's not one of those bartenders with a PhD in ice block engineering or a collection of vintage suspenders; he's simply the guy behind the bar who's friendly enough to help you order exactly what you want, but grumpy enough that you know he'll make it just right.
Lost Lake (address and info) andChicago Athletic Association Hotel (address and info) Chicago, IL Mr. McGee cut his teeth working behind the bar in Houston and Vegas before moving up to Chicago to open the Whistler in 2008. Now, he oversees the beverage program at the recently re-opened Chicago Athletic Association Hotel, as well as his Tiki hideout Lost Lake, where he'll extol the wonders of rhum agricole without an ounce of pretense and then serve up a flaming cocktail in a skull mug without singeing a single beard hair. You'd be hard-pressed to find a bartender more knowledgeable about rum -- Lost Lake alone features over 275, some from long-dead distilleries -- or one who can pull off both dapper suits and Hawaiian shirts.
The Rum Line (address and info) andLure Fishbar (address and info) Miami Beach, FL Robert Ferrara is a perennial pick for the best bartender in Miami, but despite his accolades (and staggering liquor knowledge), he's not pretentious. He sincerely, genuinely wants to tell you all about his bacon fat-washed Old Fashioned, or carrot juice daiquiri, or latest barrel-aged experiments because he's just really damn excited about his drinks.
Leyenda (address and info) Brooklyn, NY After putting in time at Fort Defiance and Mayahuel, Mix soon landed at Lani Kai, where she trained with New York legend Julie Reiner. Clover Club came next, and after she was good and famous for her Palo Negro, she graduated to co-owner and head bartender of Leyenda. Amidst all that, she co-founded Speed Rack -- a national competition of top female bartenders -- with Lynnette Marrero, which gives 100% of its proceeds to breast cancer research. And just this year, she won American Bartender of the Year at the Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards. Oh, and one more thing: she's not even 30 years old yet.
Kingfish (address and info) New Orleans, LA Chris McMillian is the sort of old-school bartender that you can only find in books that feature brooding, 1800s-era gents who only stop their bemoaning after enlightening conversation and a stiff classic drink with the bartender. That is to say, you should desperately want to find a seat at McMillian’s bar. Not only will he be able to talk you through the entire history of the Sazerac (along with his wife, he founded the Museum of the American Cocktail back in ’08) while you sip his version, which I honestly think is the best you’ll find in the country. He’ll probably also work in some secret fact about NOLA that even locals have forgotten and, should you be in a state like that wayward drinker from the fictional book, maybe he’ll even help you stop whatever you’re brooding over. But if he can’t, I promise that Sazerac will.
Trick Dog (address and info) San Francisco, CA Caitlin Laman blew up on the national scene in 2014, when she proceeded to win both the national title in Speed Rack and be named as Food & Wine's best new mixologist. Admittedly, I felt a little bit of whatever it is the hip kids feel when their favorite band goes mainstream, as I'd been privy to Caitlin's exceptional mix of skill, humor, and freakish speed for a long time at Trick Dog. I kind of liked having it all to myself.
No. 308 (address and info) Nashville, TN In an underrated cocktail city like Nashville, there's a lot of talent if you know where to look, but one of the most famous liquor luminaries is undoubtedly Ben Clemons. His bar, No. 308, shook up the Nashville scene in 2010 with its selection of sangria cocktail jars, Mexican Coke-and-peanut bourbon cocktails, and shots named for famous boozers like Bukowski -- all of which are a nod to the owner's Miami and NYC nightlife pedigrees. And though he was only runner-up in Bombay Sapphire's World's Most Imaginative Bartender competition, he's still 100% better at mixing cocktails than you are.
Trade (address and info) Boston, MA When you post cocktail photos on Instagram, your G&T comes out grainier than your grandparents’ home movies, and only your weird roommate from sophomore year double-taps it. But when Tenzin 'grams a new drink, Boston pays attention. The beautiful boozy creations on @bostonmixdrink actually helped him secure his current gig at Trade, where he’s known to shake charred pineapple, serrano chilies, and tequila into heat-heavy cocktails. If you’re not sure what to order, just ask for the "Trust Your Bartender." It means dealer’s choice, and Tenzin is always working with a stacked deck.
Clyde Common (address and info) andPepe le Moko (address and info) Portland, OR Basically invent barrel-aged cocktails? Been there, done that. Get everyone into bottled, carbonated cocktails? Old news. Now, Jeffrey Morgenthaler is all about reviving questionable '80s cocktails. His amaretto sours are downright desirable, which is a grand feat because those things never are.
The Last Word (address and info) Ann Arbor, MI After a spell at The Ravens Club and starting the Greater Detroit chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild, the man moved over to his current station at The Last Word. There, he crafts coffee cocktails named for Clint Eastwood movies (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly) and administers a kind of "penicillin" that has a whole lot more Scotch than antibiotics.
Arnaud's French 75 (address and info) New Orleans, LA The French 75 has a deserved reputation on its own -- connected to Arnaud’s, the best spot for a French 75 (duh), and consistently on every “top bars in America” list that is rolled out each year, ours included. But that nationwide lauding is thanks in large part to Chris Hannah and his dedication to forgotten ‘tails. His time behind the marble bar has elevated it to be the go-to stop for not only expected classic cocktails, like an Old Fashioned, but also the forgotten, complicated concoctions, like a Tom and Jerry or an Aviation.
Southern Efficiency (address and info) Washington, DC For now, he's bar captain at lauded Washington whiskey bar Southern Efficiency, but he plans to reopen The Columbia Room with his mentor Derek Brown -- who's no slouch on the cocktail scene himself -- early next year. If Fetherston's menu at Southern Efficiency (and before that, Rappahannock Oyster Bar and Mockingbird Hill) is any indication, Columbia Room 2.0 is bound to be a new favorite. So head to his current station and order the Efficient Old Fashioned while you wait.
Emmanuelle (address and info) Philadelphia, PA Founding president of the Philly chapter of the United States Bartenders' Guild? Check. Current bar manager of Emmanuelle, one of the city's best cocktail bars? Check. Respected cocktail lounge consultant? Check. A generally lovely, talented person? Check. Phoebe is a huge in the city's bar scene, yet she still has time to take care of Emmanuelle's regulars.
Avenue 31 (address and info) Los Angeles, CA Matthew Biancaniello is known to pop up at LA bars, mix a bunch of utterly original and delicious drinks, and then vanish, like some kind of boozy Houdini. After a summer run at Fat Dog, he now creates drinks for Sunset newcomer Avenue 31, but the dude has vowed it's his last consulting gig. This is actually pretty good news as he wants to finally settle down and launch his own permanent home. Stay tuned, apparently it's coming "soon."
Bracero Cocina de Raiz (address and info) San Diego, CA After some key booze training at The Noble Experiment, Craft & Commerce, and Bankers Hill Bar + Restaurant, Christian Siglin is behind the bar at Javier Plascencia's Bracero Cocina de Raiz. There, he mixes cocktails like the Mahalo Guey, a combo of green tea-infused rum, Kalani coconut, orgeat syrup, and lime. Clearly, those wins at local 'tending competitions (El Dorado's annual Bartender Challenge, Don Q Rum's Ultimate Mix-Off Challenge) didn't just come out of nowhere.
Equus Restaurant and Jack's Lounge (address and info) Louisville, KY It takes a special kind of lady to log five decades in the dude-dominated bartending world, but Joy Perrine is no ordinary broad. She started slinging daiquiris for tourists in the Virgin Islands in 1965, then moved to Louisville in 1978, where she's been crafting locally famous bourbon cocktails ever since. You could attempt to make them yourself with herKentucky Bourbon Cocktail Book, but you're way better off just heading over to her longtime haunt -- Equus Restaurant and Jack's Lounge -- to have a pro do it for you.
Benjamin Cooper (address and info) San Francisco, CA You know you're in for a top-notch night when you spy Mo and his brother-in-booze Brian Felley behind the bar. Although Mo is especially proud of his dry martini, he's nationally famous for originals like the Drink With No Name -- a mix of gin, vermouth, aquavit, and cardamon bitters -- and a classy take on Zima (Zima!) that he does at his current bar. Benjamin Cooper may not be a real guy, but Mo has already built him an excellent reputation.
Kaname Izakaya (address and info) Seattle, WA Fans from as far as England and Australia were devastated when this Seattle legend suffered a heart attack in 2013, but donations to foot his medical bills poured in, and Murray returned to the bar in short time. Since then, he's been all over the place, popping up at Il Bistro, E. Smith Mercantile, and, most recently, Kaname Izakaya.
Universally adored, he's mentored countless other bartenders, and made something of a local cult hit out of The Last Word, a Prohibition-era cocktail time had erased until Murray revived it at the Zig Zag Cafe.
Porchlight (address and info) New York, NY Full transparency, Nick Bennett was Thrillist's very own Hamptons editor many moons ago, so obviously we're fans of the guy. But that doesn't diminish his barkeep credentials! His tenure as captain of Booker & Dax was impressive enough to catch Danny Meyer's attention, who hired him this year to man Porchlight's bar. In his short time there, he's somehow managed to make blue drinks desirable with the Gun Metal Blue, a blend of peach brandy, mezcal, lime juice, cinnamon syrup, and blue Curaçao.
Prizefighter (address and info) San Francisco, CA Patrick Brennan has been at the East Bay bar Prizefighter since the start, and he's one of the many things that make it so fantastic (though the patio helps). His mezcal- and tequila-spiked El Diablo is a crowd-pleaser, but any drink in the hands of this Range and Prospect alum is a safe bet.
Julep (address and info) Houston, TX Depending on who you ask, Alba Huerta might be the best bartender in Texas, or she might be the best in the country. The Houston native started serving drinks before she could even legally imbibe them, and never strayed once from her shaker in the ensuing 15 years. She worked at swanky Anvil Bar & Refuge before helping to jumpstart the fantastically named Pastry War in 2013. Southern-inspired Julep was up next, where she's currently slinging Hot July Moons (pisco, rose, strawberry, lemon, lime, egg white) and sparkling juleps (Cognac, wine, turbinado, mint).
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Kristin Hunt is a staff writer for Thrillist. She guest-bartended one time and was a complete disaster. Follow her to shitty gin and tonics at @kristin_hunt.